The Most Dangerous Game

I remember reading Richard Connell’s short story, The Most Dangerous Game, in my tenth grade English class. It was a solid, entertaining story, about a man who finds himself shipwrecked on an island, and subsequently hunted for sport by the mad aristocrat who lives there. It’s not hard to see how it would have some appeal for filmmakers, and indeed the story has inspired dozens of films and television episodes. However, only once has it actually been given a feature film under its own name, and that was with the original film adaptation. Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, The Most Dangerous Game was released in 1932, starring Joel McCrea as Robert Rainsford, the castaway hero and Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff, the mad huntsman.

McCrea plays his part well; Robert Rainsford (Sanger Rainsford in the original story) is a big game huntsman himself, and so there’s a hefty amount of irony in the fate he finds himself in. In fact, there’s a bit of heavy-handed sermonizing early on about the nature of sport hunting; it’s a little irritating in its presentation, as although it’s natural given the subject matter, it’s also very clear from the way it’s presented that there’s a bit of an agenda being pushed here.

McCrea plays Rainsford as a strong, self-assured, and strongly moral hero, who respects his prey as he hunts and is appalled by Count Zaroff’s enthusiasm for hunting mankind. Banks is brilliant as Count Zaroff, showing him as a sophisticated madman, just barely restrained at the best of times. He is thrilled to have the renowned big game hunter Rainsford on his island, and is disappointed when Rainsford doesn’t want to hunt alongside him… but then equally gleeful at the chance to hunt Rainsford himself. We see raving lunatics all the time in cinema, especially early works, so it’s nice to see an early film in which the villain has a colder form of insanity. Noble Johnson acts as a counterpart to Banks’ Zaroff, as his mute Cossack manservant Ivan (in a rare instance of a black man playing a white character, and according to IMDb, the first such case); while he does not speak, his facial expressions show madness as fierce as Zaroff’s.

There are a couple characters in the movie that weren’t in the story, added for the purpose of introducing a love interest to the story. Fay Wray plays Eve Trowbridge, and Robert Armstrong plays her brother Martin. You might recognize these names from the 1933 classic King Kong; in fact, while King Kong was released the next year, the two films were shot at the same time, with King Kong shooting at day time and The Most Dangerous Game shooting on the same set at night.

Which I believe means Rainsford is technically only the second-most dangerous game on the island.

The character of Martin is a drunk, largely there to provide comic relief as the tension ramps up — the hunt only occupies the final third of the 60-minute run time. Armstrong is so convincing at playing the falling-down drunk that it’s easy to wonder if perhaps he was genuinely three sheets to the wind. The strength of his performance makes up for the fact that his accent sounds sufficiently different from Wray’s that it’s not really possible to believe in them as siblings. For her part, Wray’s character doesn’t provide much beyond the romantic angle, as she’s useless in the jungle and mostly just screams; she does, however, get a decent scene in Zaroff’s castle as she tries to indicate to Rainsford that she doesn’t trust the Count.

The directing of the film is pretty solid, with some decent fight scenes, and all shots seem to have been carefully planned out. Of special note is the segment in the cabin on Rainsford’s yacht in the beginning, where the camera very slowly cants from one side to the other creating the illusion of a rocking boat.

The Most Dangerous Game may be an old film, and a relatively short film, but it’s definitely worth watching. If you’ve ever enjoyed any of the numerous takes off of the story, it’s very likely you’ll enjoy the film.

Rating: 4 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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4 Responses to The Most Dangerous Game

  1. For some reason I used to watch this fairly often as a kid. Really not sure why and I don’t remember everything about it now either.

  2. Eric says:

    I’m pretty sure we read this short story in 10th grade English as well, and we watched the film shortly after. I remember liking both quite a bit. I think it could be fun to revisit the movie. Great review, Morgan, and thanks for the reminder.

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